'Thrown to the wolves': legal aid cuts to hit the poor

A PAIR of Ballarat lawyers have warned of tough times ahead for local court-goers and legal practitioners following the highly publicised $3.1 million budget blowout of Victoria Legal Aid.

Local solicitor and former legal studies teacher Jon Irwin said alleged criminals suffering financial hardship risked being “thrown to the wolves” if they didn’t meet increasingly strict criteria for legal aid funding.

Some would have to rely on pro-bono work while others would be forced to represent themselves in court, he said.

“There’s a concept in our law that everyone has the right to be represented but unfortunately the perception increasingly is that justice is something for the fortunate,” he said.

“People who are impoverished and require a grant of legal aid, which they now won’t get, will miss out on justice.

“If you can’t put your hand in your pocket then too bad, that may well mean you go to jail.”

Victorian Legal Aid (VLA) has also changed its policy on paying private lawyers, meaning small practices like Mr Irwin’s can wait up to 30 days for payment, and sometimes longer.

“A lot of lawyers who rely on VLA payments are going to struggle and what it effectively means is they won’t want to work for VLA because there’s no pay or slow pay,” Mr Irwin said.

“I’ve been waiting a month and a half for (payment for) two matters and a month for another matter.”

Law Institute of Victoria criminal law section member Diane Haddon worked for 22 years as a duty solicitor prior to VLA’s arrival in Ballarat. Speaking as a private solicitor, she said unprepared court-goers could face harsher penalties if they were found ineligible for representation from the VLA duty solicitor.

“Traffic matters, you can go to jail on a traffic matter real quick. If you’ve got any priors you could be looking at a stretch (in prison),” she said.

“My worry is that more and more young people, when they’re charged they rock up and think they’ll be right and they’re carted off out the back door. The blase attitude, it’s got worse.”

VLA reported the organisation has been experiencing unprecedented demand for services due to the increased policing of family violence, growth in child protection and more detected crime across the state.

A spokesperson for Attorney-General Robert Clark said the state government had provided record levels of taxpayer funding to VLA and that the federal government should pay more.

The Law Institute of Victoria is planning a protest at the Melbourne County Court forecourt on December 11.

evan.schuurman@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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